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Below is footage of IBM’s supercomputer Watson taking on human challengers in Jeopardy. It is amazing, and I predict this will mark a huge turning point for humanity; it will be when the believability of artificial intelligence becomes mainstream.

I have to confess that I have always been bored by discussion about AI and singularity from Robin Hanson and others. I couldn’t get interested in debates about whether AI would be like this or that, or whether it would… um… see, it’s never even interesting enough for me to read far enough past “AI will be…” to even tell what it is they’re discussing about it.

This doesn’t say anything about the topic or Robin’s presentation of it, but simply reflects my own shortcomings in caring about something which seems, to put a Hansonian point on it, so far away. I’ve always heard that AI will likely happen and that it’s just a matter of time. I had no reason to doubt this, but still, it didn’t feel true. This, I know, is not an mindset to be proud of, but I think I’m probably close to the median on this. As in most things, I’d venture I’m far closer to the median than Robin anyway.

But now, with the spectacle of Watson, and after seeing this short clip of him, it changes things. AI and singularity suddenly feel near enough to care about. It feels believable, and so it feels suddenly much more important. Today for the first time ever I could really picture, in a near rather than far sense, all of my skills being replaced by a computer and myself arriving at near zero marginal productivity. I imagine it’s similar to what it would be like to grow up in a pre-flight age, and to be told that human flight is a scientific possibility. Sure you may factually accept the science behind the claims, but until you see it at least almost happen, it’s not nearly real.

I probably should have cared about this sooner, and there is a lesson here about thinking about and caring about things your gut tells you are far away but the facts tell are closer than they feel. I guess that’s why it’s important to force yourself to read Robin Hanson even if your gut tells you the topic feels boring and implausibly far. Maybe this means I need to start caring about cryogenics.

This is certainly going to change how people think about AI, and I’m beginning to wonder if Ken Jennings versus Watson will be the most watched television event of all time.

Tom Levenson at Balloon Juice has a lengthy reply to my article on the value of good teachers that accuses me of neither understanding nor reading the paper at hand, and drawing incorrect conclusions from it. He’s wrong.

It’s ironic that Tom is accusing me of not reading a paper based on a blog post of mine that he has clearly not read, but has instead relied on the two paragraphs of it quoted by Conor Friedersdorf at The Daily Dish. Tom says I wouldn’t be as surprised by the results of the study if I were familiar with the literature:

That jolt would be a little less if you read—hell not the primary literature—but, say, just blog posts written by the New York Times’ best economics writer, David Leonhardt, who in the distant obscurity of … oh, this summer, reported on another study that looked at the impact of a good kindergarten teacher on future earnings and other social outcomes.

Anyone who is stunned by the specific result or the broader claim that educational outcomes have an impact on economic success simply hasn’t been paying attention…

Like Tom, I think it helps to put research in the context of existing literature, which is why I included this in my original post:

You can find similar results in the work of Raj Chetty, which suggests that good kindergarten teachers are worth $320,000.

If you follow that link you’ll see it takes you to that same David Leonhardt article, and had Tom actually read my post he would have seen this.

Unlike Tom, and despite having already read David Leonhardt, I do find Hanushek’s results “shocking”.  For one thing, Hanushek runs through a large range of plausible values for the parameters determining the value of better teachers and even with very large knowledge depreciation rates he still finds a value of $150,000 for a teacher in the 75th percentile with a class size of 20.

In addition, the net present value of over $100 trillion that would result from replacing the bottom replacing the worst 5-8% of teachers with average teachers would be, as Hanushek calls it, an “astounding” improvement in welfare. This is especially important given that, as Tom points out, we don’t yet have a good idea how to design performance pay in a way that ensures higher teacher quality. Hanushek argues that this difficulty raises the importance of the replace-the-worst-teachers policy:

The foregoing analysis has also implicitly suggested an alternative approach to simple performance pay that could be more cost effective.  If there is an accurate screen on teacher effectiveness, many of the properties of a performance pay scheme can be achieved by eliminating low performing teachers and paying the remaining teachers higher but relatively flat salaries.

So I’m sorry if Tom is not impressed or surprised by these results. Given the considerable media attention this paper has received, including bloggers at the New York Times, the Huffington Post, Education Next, the National Review, the Atlantic Wire, and the Daily Dish, I’m going to have to say that a lot of people disagree with Tom.

As an aside to all of this, I want to add that I don’t think those who prefer a system that consists mostly of public schools should be happy about the difficulty of finding good ways to structure performance pay and use value-added measures to identify effective teachers. The harder it is for social scientists to identify clear ways to improve the education system through bottom down reforms the more likely it becomes that more market based, bottom up reforms are both necessary and popularly demanded. I think this will mean things like vouchers, charters, and more creative reforms like this proposal Reihan Salam highlights from Rick Hess and Olivia Meeks:

Wisconsin would do well to start exploring a new model at the high school level. It ought to continue insisting that schools provide the 11 core credits, amounting to about 55% of the high school curriculum, but then rewrite the funding formula so that the per pupil allocation currently delivered to school districts is broken into two pieces: 55% to fund “core” mandated instruction and 45% deposited in a virtual Educational Spending Account (ESA) created for each child. Parents would have a choice. They could direct those ESA dollars to their child’s school and simply enroll their child in the usual manner, or they could use them to procure instruction from other state-approved providers.

If we could drastically improve the public school system simply through better pay structure and value-added measures then I think the public school system as it stands would require much less change than it’ll get if those relatively simple changes fail. I don’t think those who prefer a system that consists mostly of public schools will be happy with what we get when simpler reforms fail, because I believe the end result will be a more privatized system than would otherwise be necessary if we could centrally plan our way to a great education system.

For the record, I recognize that this is a very speculative claim, and there is a lot of room for reasonable disagreement here.

Slate is the internet’s most notorious house of contrarianism. It’s their formula, and most of the time it’s pretty obvious -at least it was, I haven’t been a regular Slate reader for some time, being turned off by said obvious contrarianism and the frequent wrongness it required. But they may have just lured me back with what might be the most contrarian sentence in the most contrarian article in the history of the internet:

Noncannibalistic people may be the weird ones, cross-culturally speaking.

The article is titled “Bite Me: An Evolutionary Case for Cannibalism”, and quite frankly I love it… the article that is, not cannibalism. Perhaps dropping their bucket into the contrarian well and coming up dry is pushing Slate to extremism. If so, then I think I’m going to reconsider making them part of my daily reading, because that, at least, would be interesting.

h/t @petersuderman

After reading through the Modeled Behavior Twitter stream and playing around with Google’s new Ngram database (and the Google Body Browser), I had an epiphany, which I immediately tweeted:

Here’s an interesting comparison, but I defy you to counter it: Google (Labs) is the modern-day Bell Labs…

For anyone who would like to read an interesting, if not rather rosy view of Bell Labs in the heyday of its operations, check out the book The Rape of Ma Bell, by Constantine Raymond Kraus and Alfred W. Duerig.

Bell Labs was the research and development arm of the AT&T conglomerate. It subsequently became Lucent Technologies, and then was integrated into the Alcatel-Lucent conglomerate. Here is an excerpt from Wikipedia:

At its peak, Bell Laboratories was the premier facility of its type, developing a wide range of revolutionary technologies, including radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, information theory, the UNIX operating system, the C programming language and the C++ programming language. Seven Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work completed at Bell Laboratories.

The theme of a productive arm of an organization funding wild research has even transcended the physical universe into popular narratives of late. In Avatar, Giovannia Ribisi’s character, in a tussle with Sigourney Weaver’s character, reveals that it is their revenue stream that keeps her research functioning. Similarly, in GI Joe, Christopher Eccleston’s character informs Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character that once they conquer the world, he can perform all the research he wishes.* Not to mention, the famous conspiracy theories surrounding Nikola Tesla involve the same sort of relationship.

Web 2.0 companies are particularly interested in this sort of symbiotic relationship between profit-generating arms, and public goods research. Was AT&T a glimpse into the future? Will we see more of this?

*Forgive me for not remembering the characters’ names!

If you had a computer chip implanted in your brain that allowed you to perform complex mathematical computations just by looking at numbers and equations, like an onboard calculator, would you consider that genuine cognitive activity? How about if the computer chip was instead in your pocket? Answering “yes” to the former question is much more intuitive than a “yes” to the latter, but why should that be?

This are questions that occur in the fields of “embodied cognition” and “the extended mind”, and the topic of a recent article in the New York Times. The author of the article, Andy Clark, argues that we should view the theoretical brain-mounted computer chip as “bio-external elements in an extended cognitive process: one that now criss-crosses the conventional boundaries of skin and skull”. Importantly, he argues that iPhones and blackberries function in a similar way that a brain mounted chip would, and so they should be thought of likewise.

I’ve made similar arguments before, and I think that in the not-so-distant future we won’t need thinkers like Andy Clark to prompt us to consider these questions, as technology will place them front and center. Even if you find it absolutely clear that none of todays technologies should be considered cognition, or part of your brain, mind, or self, it will be much less clear as future technologies become more seamlessly integrated with our thought process.

For instance, consider the inevitable scenario I’ve laid out before: micro-computers, visual retinal displays, augmented reality, and neural input devices combined so that you’ve essentially got a brain-mounted computer on virtual floating screens in front of you that you control with your thoughts.   Whether or not using these future devices should be considered cognition and part of our minds will be much trickier than it is with today’s iPhones, especially considering that from everyone else’s perspective “organic thought”, as you might call it, will often be indistinguishable from “computer thought”. “Did he just remember my birthday when I asked if he knew it, or did he look it up?”

It’s my inclination to be drawn to studies showing that we waste money on medical care. This is probably because the fact that so much medical care has no impact, or worse, on actual health outcomes is a underappreciated and counterintuitive truth than the fact that some medical care has benefits that exceed costs. Even after reading many of them, marginal studies showing the former are still always more interesting to me than the latter. But it’s important to focus as well on studies that demonstrate places where medical care has real value.

In this vein, an abstract from a new paper in The Quarterly Journal of Economics has really stuck with me all week for it’s empirical ingenuity and it’s results:

A key policy question is whether the benefits of additional medical expenditures exceed their costs. We propose a new approach for estimating marginal returns to medical spending based on variation in medical inputs generated by diagnostic thresholds. Specifically, we combine regression discontinuity estimates that compare health outcomes and medical treatment provision for newborns on either side of the very low birth weight threshold at 1,500 grams… Under an assumption that observed medical spending fully captures the impact of the “very low birth weight” designation on mortality, our estimates suggest that the cost of saving a statistical life of a newborn with birth weight near 1,500 grams is on the order of $550,000 in 2006 dollars.


ADDENDUM: See Mark Thoma in the comments. The paper’s results may actually be spurious. So much for some good news.

Urged on by government warnings about saturated fat, Americans have been moving toward low-fat milk for decades, leaving a surplus of whole milk and milk fat. Yet the government, through Dairy Management, is engaged in an effort to find ways to get dairy back into Americans’ diets, primarily through cheese….

…Dairy Management, whose annual budget approaches $140 million, is largely financed by a government-mandated fee on the dairy industry. But it also receives several million dollars a year from the Agriculture Department, which appoints some of its board members, approves its marketing campaigns and major contracts and periodically reports to Congress on its work.

The organization’s activities, revealed through interviews and records, provide a stark example of inherent conflicts in the Agriculture Department’s historical roles as both marketer of agriculture products and America’s nutrition police.

Read the whole article, it’s in turn depressing and hilarious. The fact that government in this day in age still considers it important to “bolster farmers” is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about when I worry about industrial policy’s inability to cease once it’s outlived it’s usefulness. Bad subsidies really seem to have a hard time going away.

Following a post from Tyler Cowen I stumble upon Universal Darwinism, which describes its aim as:

Universal Darwinism is the collection of scientific theories which explain design found in the universe as the creation of Darwinian processes.

This site attempts an introduction to this marvellous area of study and the work of some of its most exciting researchers.

It is our hope that the unified scientific view on the wondrous workings of nature revealed by Universal Darwinism may serve the purpose that Einstein envisioned for Science: ‘To awaken the Cosmic Religious Experience and to keep it alive in those receptive to it.’

All well and good, however, its always seemed to me that Darwinism or natural selection was simply as subset of the concept that we observe things which are highly observable, thus the universe will appear to be designed as if for the purpose of being observed.

How could anything else be true?

Natural selection in our world operates through inheritance but inheritance is not necessary for this this to hold. If creatures were simply randomly popping into existence and some where devoured by others and some not, then we would still observe a set of creatures that looked as if was designed not to be devoured.


Because all the others would have been devoured and thus rendered unobservable.

There is a very interesting article at the Atlantic from David Just and Brian Wansink from the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs. They discuss their work on improving healthy eating in school cafeterias using the subtle wizardry of behavioral economics. There have been some impressive results:

One school in upstate New York was able to increase consumption of salads by close to 300 percent by simply moving their salad bar six feet from the wall and placing it near a natural bottleneck in the check-out line. Another school increased fruit sales by 105 percent by moving the apples and oranges from stainless steel bins into a well-lit and attractive basket.

It is encouraging to see behavioral economics being put into creative use like this. The authors argue that “It is difficult to teach a high school student how to make healthy choices in the real world if only escarole and tofu on are on the school lunch menu”. But is this teaching them to choose better or tricking them into choosing better? After all, if behavior is so amenable to subtle tricks like this then what hope can there be that any behavioral changes will actually last? I can’t tell if articles like this should make us more or less hopeful. Yes, the good scientists here are making a difference, but are we really so impressionable?

Brad DeLong provides it:

When Charles Ferguson writes:

Summers rose up from the audience and attacked [Raghu Rajan], calling him a “Luddite,” dismissing his concerns, and warning that increased regulation would reduce the productivity of the financial sector…

he has gotten the mood and some of the substance of the discussion wrong.

I know.

I was there–not only for the formal session recorded in the transcript, but for the patio-coffee and the lunchtime and dinnertime conversations that followed.

Larry did not “dismiss” Raghu concerns… Indeed, for twenty years one of Larry’s conversation openers has been: “You really should write something else good on positive-feedback trading and its dangers for financial markets.”…

And if you think that Larry pulled his punches in August 2005 on the importance of reforming compensation schemes because fourteen months later he was going to take a job at the hedge fund of D.E. Shaw, you attribute an extraordinarily degree of precognition–back in August 2005 I thought Larry had weathered the storms at Harvard and would be president until 2010 or so.

When some journalists write about how economists “failed” in this crisis and did so because of their incentives it sounds extremely conspiratorial and, to be frank, Naomi Klein-ish. And just to be clear, that’s not a compliment. Economics is an extremely combative science. If you want to put forth some argument in the public sphere it will be attacked, mercilessly, even if it’s brilliant and correct.

Journalists and bloggers frequently seem frustrated or confused by the lack of agreement among economists, but it is precisely this disagreement that generates such a robust system of criticism. Even if you’re ideas are absolutely correct and rigorously argued, there will be someone -and probably a Nobelist or two- who disagrees with you and is looking for the weak spot, eager to tear it apart. I just don’t see any room in this environment for money motived research to gain ground.

Say Larry was in fact putting forth weak ideas because of his monetary incentives. Well his biased reasoning would obviously be transparent to colleagues who are immersed in the same literature and researching the same topics as him.  Would highly esteemed and well respected economists across ideologies be willing to line up in droves to coauthor papers with someone whose research displayed a motivated bias? Because the only thing about Larry more impressive than his talent is his list of coauthors. A brief list includes:

  • Olivier Blanchard
  • David Culter
  • Brad DeLong
  • Jonathan Gruber
  • Barry Eichengreen
  • Greg Mankiw
  • Alan Kreuger
  • Lawrence Katz
  • Jeffrey Sachs
  • Martin Feldstein
  • Stanley Fischer

So ask yourself what is more likely to be the case: is Charles Ferguson misjudging Larry Summers, or is this ideologically diverse list of experts misjudging him? Or is it the case that Larry wasn’t biased earlier in his life and spent his whole career as an unbiased researcher until the late 2000s when he could no longer contain himself and gave in to the lurid call of biased research? Again, this sounds to me like Naomi Klein speculating about Milton Friedman and his motives in helping to liberate the Chilean economy. It’s just not plausible to me.

Kevin Drum asks

Now, there are a bunch of things you might say about this right from the start. Maybe governments shouldn’t be in the business of running nanny state ads about personal nutrition. Maybe this particular ad was disgusting and shouldn’t have been released. Maybe obesity isn’t really that big a deal in the first place. But those weren’t the issues at stake. Rather, it was this single sentence in the ad:

Drinking 1 can of soda a day can make you 10 pounds fatter a year.

What, I thought, could be wrong with that? A can of sugared soda contains about 150 calories, and adding 150 calories a day to your diet would almost certainly produce a ten-pound weight gain over the course of a year or so. There are some caveats, of course:

So I’m curious: what do you all think of this? I’m open to argument here, but it seems crazy to me, less a politicization of science from the health commissioner than a case of geekdom run amok among the scientists. I mean, if you can’t tell people that adding a bunch of calories to your diet will make you gain weight, what can you tell them?

The problem is that the calorie balance interpertation implies a completely false understanding of what is going on. There is an extent to which geekdom can tolerate this level of nonsense and there is a point at which it must be combated.

I will compare to something I know Kevin gets. The calorie balance logic is equivalent to saying.

Government deficits drain savings. Savings are the engine of growth. Therefore, cutting the deficit immediately is our best shot at growth.

In both cases you are taking an accounting identity

  1. Private Savings – Public Borrowing = Net National Investment
  2. Calories-In – Calories-Out = Calories Contained in the Body

And, treating it as if it were a model of the world.

You have to be aware that public borrowing might effect private savings. In particular if public borrowing stimulates the economy it will increase private income which in turn will increase private savings.

You also need to be aware that Calories-In affects energy and hunger levels which not only feeds back to Calories-Out but also to other Calories-In.

I used to post this thing a lot, but since the blog has new readers it might be worth our while to look at how a properly functioning metabolism responds to a rapid increase in Calories-In

The big question we have is why does this stop working in some people? Just to note, there are many, many other feedback loops that are important as well. I point out this one because it so obvious both that it works in the healthy metabolism and that it fails in the unhealthy one.

You are probably aware of the relationship between diabetes and obesity. It is commonly assumed that obesity causes diabetes. This is in part because even some scientists are fixated on the accounting identity. However, there is a reasonable case that diabetes may cause obesity.

That is, the resistance of the muscles to insulin causes the breakdown in the “sugar rush” response (and other loops) which then breaks down the feedback from calories-in to calories-out.

Now, if it is in fact the case that sugary drinks induce insulin resistance this connection may still hold. However, it is almost certain that the simple minded thinking that in general dropping a 150 calorie item from your diet will not feedback on other metabolic components promotes a fundamental misunderstanding of what’s going on.


For the geeks. Yes, in truth even what I have written here is a gross oversimplification and ignores central facts such that an increase in obesity from sugar consumption must be proximately caused by an increase lipogenesis or a decrease in lypolysis both of which are hormonly regulated processess. That is, just as there is no such thing as immaculate transfer there is no such thing as immaculate obesity.

You can’t just throw organic matter at a metabolism and get fat. You actually have to create fatty acids and bind them up into triglycerides. Any model that assumes that you can is going to wind up disappointing you and of course there are a fair bit of disappointed dieters. We need to do better as intellectuals.

There is a fair amount of support these days for the idea that the government should be getting involved in industrial policy. The argument is that the government can help make the U.S. become a competitive producer of green technologies. This will have several benefits, so the theory goes, including giving us something to export, creating high paid green jobs, and helping the environment. Proponents point to the example of Germany, which has used industrial policy to help create a large solar panel industry. Or they’ll point to China, whose government has a heavy hand in creating their many green manufacturers. Let’s leave aside for now the question of whether those policies are working for those countries, the question is should we do it here?

Many will point out that we are already involved in industrial policy in the energy sector, it’s just that our industrial policy favors dirty energy. The important thing is, Matt Yglesias tweeted yesterday, “that we have bad industrial policy now and should make it explicit and improve it”. I can agree with this sentiment, but I would modify it to say this: we have bad industrial policy now, and we should prove we can fix the existing problems before expanding it’s scope and aim. Now there is a lot of overlap between these two notions, and a fair bit of semantics, but there is at least one crucial difference: I’m arguing if we don’t have good reason to believe we can fix some of the current systematic problems, then just killing bad industrial policy is greatly preferable to attempting to build good industrial policy.

The problems our current industrial energy policy is that it doesn’t have, in fact doesn’t allow, the characteristics that we want of a healthy dynamic industry. In order for industrial policy to work in the long-run it needs to be able to allow subsidies to cease for products, companies, and even industries that become outdated. This means it has to be effective at identifying these industries, and capable of cutting off life-support.  This is what the creative destruction of capitalism provides, and our current policies do not.

I agree with Matt that dirty technologies like coal and oil shouldn’t be given preferential treatment over clean ones like they currently are. Nor should ethanol, our largest attempt at a green industrial energy policy that almost everyone recognizes does not pass cost benefit. Yet if we can’t wind down the inefficient, environmentally devastating subsidies to these industries, why should we believe that the government will ever be able to hit undo if they accidently pick the wrong “winner” this time around, or if today’s “winner” becomes tomorrow’s “loser”?

The reason industrial policy has this problem is that it is explicitly geared towards creating jobs. Once those jobs are created, the goal for policy-makers becomes preserving those jobs. This is the antithesis of creative destruction, and a huge impediment to progress. What happens if we build this giant “green economy” supporting millions of middle class jobs and then a cheaper and more environmentally friendly technology comes along that makes them all redundant? Will the politicians who decide our allocations of energy via mandate and subsidy allow those jobs to go away and progress to occur, or will they fight tooth and nail to preserve the inefficient status quo?

For these reasons I find the idea of an NIH for green technologies compelling. Moneys are doled out by competitive grants to researchers with proven track records and good ideas, and the emphasis is on creating technologies, not jobs. But with respect to subsidies, mandates, and other command-and-control industrial policy, I don’t see how they will overcome the failure problem.

When the Institute of Medicine recommended broad, draconian regulation of salt last year, I pushed back against the idea, one might say, obsessively. Now, via Marion Nestle, comes a new paper in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition arguing that the current level of sodium intake is not a problem for the population. The article comes with an accompanying editorial titled  “Science trumps politics: urinary sodium data challenge US dietary sodium guideline” that closes with this appeal:

The analyses of extensive measurements of 24-h UNaV, which these 2 reports have collected from the medical literature over the past 5 decades, are compelling. They provide plausible, scientific evidence of a “normal” range of dietary sodium intake in humans that is consistent with our understanding of the established physiology of sodium regulation in humans. This scientific evidence, not political expediency, should be the foundation of future government policies, thus respecting the known and unknown scientific complexities surrounding sodium’s role in health and disease. Guidance for sodium intake should target specific populations for whom a lower sodium intake is possibly beneficial. Such an approach would avoid broad proscriptive guidelines for the general population for whom the safety and efficacy are not yet defined. An appropriate next step is not to lower the sodium guideline further.

You can find my previous coverage of salt regulation here, herehereherehere, and here.

Every now and again the fact is brought up that by count most of the cells in your body are bacteria.

This is a cute and interesting bit but it should be pointed out that simple prokaryotic bacteria cells are very small in comparison to the complex eukaryotic cells that make up most of our tissues. A tenth of the size by length, a 1000th of the size by volume.

Glenn Beck drew (more) attention the other day when he declared on his radio program that he didn’t believe in evolution because “I haven’t seen a half-monkey, half-person yet”. Leave aside for the moment the fact that humans descended from, and in fact are, apes, not monkeys. Let’s give Beck the benefit of the doubt and presume what he meant was that he has never met something in between a human and some monkey-like creature, and here I think I can help him. As you can see in the map below, a mere 7 minute drive from Fox News Studios at Rockefeller Center where Beck broadcasts is the American Museum of Natural History. There Glenn can visit the The Hall of Human Origins and see life-sized dioramas of Australopithecus afarensisHomo ergaster, Neanderthal, and Cro-Magnon. Not only that, but he can also see actual casts of Lucy, the 3.2 million Australopithecus afarensis skeleton, and Turkana boy, the 1.7 million year Homo erectus skeleton.

Now Lucy may not technically be a “half-monkey, half-person”, but as you can see from the picture below of  how an Australopithecus afarensis is believed to have looked, that’s not a half bad description of her.

Of course, lover of science that he is, Mr. Beck may have seen these casts and recreations already, and his skepticism can only be appeased by meeting the “real thing”. Well, he should have said something earlier, because from June through October 2009 Lucy was actually on display at the Discovery Times Square Exposition a mere 7 minute walk from Fox News Studios. He could have gone there on his lunch break.

If Beck wants to see a “half-monkey, half-person” all he needs is a little genuine curiosity and about 30 minutes of free time. Given his talent and zeal for digging up convoluted “proof” of far fetched conspiracy theories, you’d think he be a little better at finding evidence for a legitimate theory like evolution; especially since there’s plenty of evidence right in his neighborhood. Maybe someone should tell him that “Van Jones loves Karl Marx” has been scrawled on a bathroom wall at the American Museum of Natural History. Important evidence like that is sure to draw him there.

Kevin Drum is skeptical of my brain mounted computer prognostication. His general point is that the “perfect memory” that computer brains would provide would only get you so far, and that there is non-trivial factual knowledge that critical and would not be storable in the sense that mere facts would be. This I can agree with. A perfect computerized memory may mean you know longer have to memorize proofs, but you still have to understand them. Still, the existence of perfect memory changes what we must work at in learning proofs and would drastically change the emphasis of education. It essentially makes every test an open book test.

He also argues that access to information is not useful without knowledge of how to use it, specifically he disagrees with my claim that “All fields will be trained more like librarians are today”.

…the fact is that librarians don’t know how to do accounting. Nor do they know how to perform brain surgery, calculate an IS-LM curve, or write a blog post.1 There are lots of kids whose computer retrieval skills are vastly superior to mine, but it does them no good if they’re trying to figure out anything more complicated than the showtime for Jackass 3D. That’s because aside from trivia, fact retrieval isn’t very useful unless you know what facts to look for in the first place, how to evaluate those facts, whether they’re reliable, how to put them into context, what’s missing, and what it all means. My retrieval skills are better than virtually any teenager’s not because of my technical prowess, but because I have some idea of what to search for in the first place, how to follow those results to other results, and how to figure out if the stuff I find is meaningful in any but the most frivolous way.

I would argue that  having “some idea of what to search for in the first place, how to follow those results to other results, and how to figure out if the stuff I find is meaningful in any but the most frivolous way” is exactly what a librarian is trained to do. This does not mean one will only need to learn the material as deeply as a librarian would, but that retrieval skills will become much more important and factual knowledge will become less important. However, I take Kevin’s broad point that deeper knowledge and understanding of materials will not become less important, and are in fact an important component of retrieval skills.

My friend and sometimes illustrator Thad Pasierb also pointed out in an email that my list of the criteria by which intelligence will be measured was missing some things. Here is what I wrote:

Once perfect memory is universal, logic, reason, and analytical thinking will be the sole dimension by which intelligence is measured.

He suggests the addition of creativity, and I agree. To put things in economic terms, the price of memory has gone to zero. Those with large endowments of memory will see their relative human capital decrease, and those with large endowments of other skills, like analytical thinking or creativity, will see theirs increase. How much of an increase in human capital you get depends on the extent to which memory is a complimentary to your skills.

Forecasting what technologies we will adopt in the future and how will interact with them is a highly speculative game, and the past is littered with hilariously misguided projections. A famous example is an article in The Ladies Home Journal from 1900 that predicts what life would be like in 2000. While some guesses are impressively accurate, some are very wrong. For instance, here’s prediction #22:

Store Purchases by Tube. Pneumatic tubes, instead of store wagons, will deliver packages and bundles. These tubes will collect, deliver and transport mail over certain distances, perhaps for hundreds of miles. They will at first connect with the private houses of the wealthy; then with all homes. Great business establishments will extend them to stations, similar to our branch post-offices of today, whence fast automobile vehicles will distribute purchases from house to house.

Despite the difficultly inherent in such projections, I am prepared to argue that not only are brain mounted computers a likely future technology, but their widespread adoption is a dominant strategy equilibrium. For those unfamiliar with game theory, a dominant strategy equilibrium is the outcome that results when everyone plays the strategy that “dominates” all of the other strategies available to them, where “dominating” means it has the highest payout no matter what strategy the other players use.  Given the existence of a strictly dominant strategy equilibrium, it is inevitable.

There’s probably an accepted term for the collective bundle of technology I’m talking about that’s fancier sounding than “brain mounted computers”, but it gets the point across. I’m actually referring to several technologies that all exist in some form or another today, including virtual retinal displays, augmented reality,  neural input devices, and of course very tiny computers to run the whole thing.

Let me describe it extreme layman’s terms (the only terms I know): you’ll have a powerful computer in your future iPhone-like-device that is connected to a special contact lens that so that screens floats in front on your face, and you steer the whole thing with your brain. The most important facts about this technology is that a) nobody will be able to tell whether you’re looking at your computer or not, and b) it will always be available to you.

Why is using this device a dominant strategy? Choosing to use it is simply expanding your memory and factual knowledge to include everything on the internet. As far as anyone who knows you can tell you will never misspell a word,  not know a fact, forget the words to a song, or know any piece of data. Quick: what was the per-capita GDP of Guatamala in 1976? Anyone with a brain mounted computer will be able to tell you.

Because nobody will be able to tell whether you’re using it, genius will be indistinguishable from brain mounted computer use. If nobody uses it you will have the advantages over your coworkers that perfect memory would give you today. If everybody but you uses it you will have all the disadvantages that someone with really terrible memory has today. When everyone else uses brain mounted computers, those without them will look forgetful and unknowledgeable. It will be a dominant strategy in the same way that optional genius would be today; only extreme individuals will choose to reject it.

In time society will adjust to these technologies, and the speed and anticipation of your thoughts will increase, such that the notion of real memory will no longer be distinct from virtual memory.

Education will have to change drastically, and the fact based portion of schooling will become trivial. You’ll only need to learn how to look stuff up in a given field. All of accounting will take a week to learn. All fields will be trained more like librarians are today.

Once perfect memory is universal, logic, reason, and analytical thinking will be the sole dimension by which intelligence is measured.

Since we know memory needs to be exercised, our real capacity for memory will wither and future generations will evolve with less and less capacity for it. If some disaster were to wipe out electricity and return us to a low tech world we would be helpless, unable to remember the most basic facts without the aid of our brain computers. The few remaining natural brains (which is what we’ll derisively call them) -who chose to live as luddites in secluded villages in far away forests and jungles- will become kings… if we can remember where to find them.

If the existence of this technology is inevitable, and surely that much is uncontroversial, then how can its widespread adoption possibly be avoided?

A new paper challenges the conventional  that math is a young man’s game, and also finds that the U.S. share of the global production of mathematical articles has shrunk. They summarize their findings like this:

  • Contrarily to a widely held belief (among both scientists and lay people) the rate and quality of mathematical production does not decline rapidly with age. For mathematicians who remain scientifically active, productivity typically increases over the first 10 years, then remains almost constant until the end of their career. However there is a substantial attrition rate (i.e. mathematicians who stop publishing) at all ages.
  • There is a substantial variation over time of the geographical repartition of mathematical articles. For example although the U.S. are still by far the largest country in terms of mathematical production, their share has declined from 50% in 1984 to 34% in 2006. Similarly, the share of China is rapidly increasing but it is still surprisingly low (only 3.8% in 2006).
  • International mobility is rather weak, and it is much more symmetric than could be expected, both in terms of numbers of mathematicians and in terms of “quality” measured by the output of the mathematicians who change countries.

The study also looks at individual characteristics of mathematicians to determine what it takes to become a “good” one. They found that:

  • Size does matter: large departments are good for individual productivity. However this effect is largely due to good hirings and becomes very small when authors fixed effects are incorporated.
  • Having a specialized department has a negative impact on productivity when no fixed effect is used, but this impact becomes positive with fixed effects. This tends to indicate that a narrower scope lowers the quality of hiring, but that researchers fare better in a department with colleagues close to their mathematical interests.
  • Looking at US universities, we find several interesting results. First, money does not seem to matter: even if the endowment per student has a strong positive impact when authors fixed effect are not used, it has a non-significant negative impact when these fixed effects are incorporated. This negative effect is actually significant when taking into account the fact that the university is public or private.
  • Again for U.S. universities, the fact that a university is private has a small positive effect with respect to public ones. There is also a sizable positive effect of location on the east coast relative to the mid-west, the west coast standing in between the two.


Jon Ronson displays his talent for humanizing, and making pitiable, extreme and objectionable individuals in a profile of Insane Clown Posse, who have recently made the somewhat unbelievable claim that they have been evangelical Christians all along. Here is a sample of their new or, so they claim, newly revealed outlook:

Violent J shakes his head sorrowfully. “Who looks at the stars at night and says, ‘Oh, those are gaseous forms of plutonium’?” he says. “No! You look at the stars and you think, ‘Those are beautiful.'”

Suddenly he glances at me. The woman in the video is bespectacled and nerdy. I am bespectacled and nerdy. Might I have a similar motive?

“I don’t know how magnets work,” I say, to put him at his ease.

“Nobody does, man!” he replies, relieved. “Magnetic force, man. What else is similar to that on this Earth? Nothing! Magnetic force is fascinating to us. It’s right there, in your fucking face. You can feel them pulling. You can’t see it. You can’t smell it. You can’t touch it. But there’s a fucking force there. That’s cool!”

Amazingly, they are as egregious and detestable as evangelical Christians as they were as hateful, misogynist, murder fetishizers.

Most people will be familiar with Ronson for The Men Who Stare At Goats, but his humorous and empathetic portraits of, well, crazy people, are even more put to use in Them: Adventures With Extremists. There he shares his experiences interviewing and profiling a wide variety of extreme individuals, including a radical Islamic Ayatollah , Alex Jones, David Icke, and a klu klux klan leader. You should read everything of his.

H/T Ezra Klein

One must be careful about drawing economic and policy lessons from literary works; Jimmy Carter learned this the hard way when he allowed his economic platform to be heavily influenced by The Velveteen Rabbit. However, as anecdotal tale of modern innovation, the recent film The Social Network does present useful lessons. The question is, “what lessons does the movie show us?”.

Ezra Klein’s provides one interpretation. He says “The movie recasts a story of inevitable technological change as the saga of a socially inept genius, two or three of his most important relationships and the social pressures of Harvard University. That makes for a better film, of course. But it misses the richer drama behind transformative innovations like Facebook, and it’s part and parcel of the way we misunderstand, and thus impede, innovation.”

I agree with Ezra’s larger points about how innovation should be understood and how they tend to be misunderstood. He catalogues a number of important inventions we associate with a lone genius but instead were invented by numerous people at the same time. As detailed excellently by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker, there is something to be said for the inevitability of technological progress.

Where I disagree with him is about what lessons are actually portrayed in The Social Network. Instead of a tale of innovation as a result of a lone genius with a eureka moment, I saw it as primarily about how innovation is not about coming up with an idea -which is the providence of the lone genius, as well as cheap and easy-  but about guiding that idea through the hard work of turning an idea into a product, and about how in the modern age that process can no longer be done without a team.  Successful innovation isn’t about a lone genius and his eureka moment, but about hard work, determination, long-term strategy, and the leadership to instill those values in a good team.

From the beginning, the fact that Zuckerberg is not a lone genius is a prominent theme. This can be seen in the predecessor to Facebook, which was a Hot or Not for Harvard students, where a crucial technology Zuckerburg used was his friends algorithm for ranking chess players. From the start then, Zuckerberg is drawing on prior inventions and relying on the work of others.

Almost immediately in the development of Facebook, Zuckerberg is surrounded by a growing team of programmers. In many scenes these programmers can be seen toiling in the background, first in Zucherberg’s Harvard apartment, then in his house in California, and finally in the warehouse-like office of Facebook. Attention is drawn more than once to how hard these programmers are working, often for more than a day at a time. The team of programmers are an extension of Zuckerberg’s work ethic and obsessive dedication. In the end these traits, both in him and his team, are an important part of what makes Facebook succesful.

Some of the lessons Ezra calls for are also embodied in the inception of the “idea” of Facebook. Before he begins work on Facebook, Zuckerberg is approached by a trio of Harvard students with an idea for a Harvard-only online network, and he agrees to help them build it. While what they describe is not exactly like Facebook  -Zuckerberg repeatedly calls it a “dating site” for Harvard”- the central lesson of this struggle is that, contra Ezra, the big idea behind Facebook was not some lightning in a bottle, but something that others were thinking about and working on before Zuckerberg. The clownishness of the trio suggests that the idea must have been obvious.

The trio are used in the story to diminish the value of ideas. Despite the fact that Zuckerberg may or may not have stolen some of the idea from the trio, one is hard pressed to come away from it thinking that he should have been forced to pay them anything. This is in part because the idea of Facebook was bigger than their idea, but in the end what is convincing is not the distance between their respective ideas, but the distance between the idea and success; the hard grunt work put in by Zuckerberg and his team was in stark contrast with the Harvard trio who sought to profit from the idea without doing any work themselves.

Both his friend’s algorithm and the Harvard trio serve to put Facebook in the context Ezra calls for: innovation draws on the ideas of others, and “many people tend to see the next step forward at the same time”. He is correct that this would have been more explicit had the movie chronicled competing social networks that were very similar and competitive with Facebook. Nevertheless, the theme is there.

There are other aspects of innovation that could have been more emphasized. For instance Ezra’s larger point is that the movie neglects the commons and public nature of innovation. However, I would argue that Zuckerberg’s ability to draw from a talented programmers at Harvard, the incentives for innovation that the social structure of Harvard provided (a cool website makes them popular and famous on campus), and his relocation to the technology cradle of California all highlight this somewhat.

The movie is rich with other interesting lessons as well, for instance not only was Zuckerberg unmotivated by profit, but his lack of this motivation appeared crucial to his success. In addition, the movie questions the necessity of intellectual property rights for innovations like Facebook. All in all I think the movie contains many subtle and underappreciated lessons about innovation.

Economists are often told they they shouldn’t think they are physicists and that the world of humans is much more complex than is dreamt of in our philosophy.

I don’t disagree but at the same time I don’t think people recognize how much of the physics they are taught is a gross over-simplification to the point of being outright misleading.

XKCD brings up the airfoil once again


the rest is here. Lets not even get into the vicious lies embedded in this picture


There were many comments here and over at Kevin Drums’ blog in response to my previous post on school gardens and progressive values. I think much of the criticism reflects a misreading of (and in some cases clearly not reading whatsoever) what I wrote, which in turn probably reflects a lack of clarity on my part. So let me try and respond to some criticisms and clear up some confusion.

Much of the criticism stemmed from a belief that I was arguing something like the following:

Low income people don’t like gardening, don’t garden, and/or shouldn’t garden

This is not what I said. Gardening is obviously a hobby that is enjoyed by people of all income levels. My point here is that as a strategy for increasing vegetable consumption for low-income families or, for that matter, anyone who works a lot, home gardening has very little potential. Obviously, some blue collar workers do grow gardens in window boxes, and some live in single-family homes with yards where they can have larger gardens. But given the amount by which Americans are falling short of their daily recommended vegetable intake, window boxes and backyard gardens for families who have the free time, energy, and desire to maintain them are not going to get us very far.

The problem here isn’t just with gardening as a solution, as Alice Waters’ and her organization clearly sees them as just part of the solution, but that gardens represents a broader slow food philosophy that underlies the entire movement. This focus on slow food is where progressive values get in the way of practical solutions.

For instance, I’ve argued that it’s important to focus on ways of making vegetables cheap, easy, and delicious.  In contrast, supporters of the slow food movement, and some commenters,  seem to believe that low-income and working people have a lot of extra free time to spend on gardening, food preparation, and frequent trips to the store for fresh vegetables. Quite frankly I never expected to see so many people claim that low-income  people have a lot of free time on their hands; judging by the responses I got it would seem Americans are suffering from a glut of free time. I believe this presumption is unpractical and problematic.

Slow food is a luxury which many low-income and working people simply won’t be willing or able to make time for. While it’s okay for schools to teach kids to the ideas of slow food as a small part of a broader healthy schools program, a practical solution must also focus on fact, cheap, easy, and delicious vegetables.  The mission of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation goes completely against this idea:

Our mass consumer culture has created an unprecedented crisis of diet-related disease among our nation’s youth… Not only are children eating unhealthy food, they are absorbing the values that go with it: the notions that food should be fast, cheap, and easy; that abundance is permanent; that it’s ok to waste.

For those that would defend the local/fresh/organic focus by arguing this it’s really just as cheap, fast, and easy as other vegetables, keep in mind that this organization thinks those qualities are negative, and to be avoided.

The other thing to note from that part of the mission statement is that it doesn’t represent universally shared values, but the progressive values of the slow food movement. Tying a healthy foods movement to progressive values like this will limit its success in parts of the country outside liberal urban areas. While it’s reasonable to show kids that food can be more enjoyable if you embrace slow food, pushing slow food as a more prerogative is not.

For instance, the idea that local and organic foods are great is not a fact or universal value, but a progressive value. Many parents disagree, and it’s completely reasonable to believe that eating local foods for the sake of local foods is wasteful and foolish, and that specialization and economies of scale mean that farms should be industrial and located wherever they can be grown most efficiently. Many parents won’t want to spend their tax dollars buying local, organically grown food at a premium. The majority of consumers have certainly expressed this preference.

I’m not arguing that schools shouldn’t necessarily serve any local, organic, or fresh vegetables. But rather that these things are useful only to the extent that they are an effective means to a desirable end. Do they make kids healthier, or cost less, or help them form lifelong preferences for vegetables?  To the extent they do, then they should be used.

For local and organic foods, I’m skeptical that they are useful means to desirable ends, and therefore skeptical that much if any money should be spent on it. To the extent that the goal of using organic is that it’s healthier, then I would argue that schools shouldn’t spend money on it, since it’s not any healthier. To the extent that the goal of using local is to support local farmers, then I would also argue that schools shouldn’t spend any money on it, since charity for farmers isn’t a desirable objective for schools.

The problem is that the mission of these organizations is to make local, fresh, and organic an ends in-and-of themselves. It doesn’t matter if buying 10% more organic foods won’t make the kids eat healthier; children must be taught that organic is good. It doesn’t matter if only serving students fresh vegetables means they won’t eat frozen vegetables; they must learn that only fresh, local vegetables are good.

If you don’t believe that pushing local, fresh, and organic are objectives of the organization then you should read their websites and statements. In their food procurement criteria list, Waters’ organization includes these requirement:

  • Local. The average meal travels 1,500 miles before it gets to our plates. Find local farmers, ranchers, and dairies from which to buy directly
  • Organic or sustainably produced. Buy from farms that take care of the land.

In a statement before Congress, the executive director of Chez Panisse foundation made the argument for local foods explicit:

Buying and eating locally is a very simple concept that could have a huge impact on the environment if big public systems like schools districts, cities, parks and hospitals and private businesses all began to do it.  Imagine the way that we could stimulate local economies and reduce food miles by simply choosing to eat what is in season and buying locally from sustainable farms?

It’s impossible to make the case that getting the schools to buy foods from local farmers or those that “take care of the land” is simply in students best interest and not mainly about promoting a particular set of values. Asking schools to spend their money to benefit local farmers is egregious, and certainly not a universally shared value.

It is also telling that one of their strategies to deal with the higher expensive of organic foods is not to purchase organic to the maximum extent useful, but the “maximum extent possible”.

It is clear that progressive values are the focus of these programs, and this is at the expense of practical lessons, like how to make frozen vegetables taste good. This is extremely unfortunate, because frozen, out of season vegetables from far away are as important and deserving a part of a nutritious diet as local, fresh vegetables. Yet Waters’ organization actively works to completely remove frozen vegetables from school lunches.

If you think healthy school lunches and school gardens are good, you should agree that these organizations pushing for them need to remove the emphasis on progressive values and focus more on practical solutions. Slow food may be useful part of a healthy schools program as a means to an end, but pushing those values for their own sake should not be the objective, and certainly should not come at the expense of more practical lessons.

Via The Daily Dish, here is Francis Collins, the head of NIH, on science, religion, and whose voices get heard:

Part of the problem is, I think the extremists have occupied the stage.  Those voices are the ones we hear.  I think most people are actually kind of comfortable with the idea that science is a reliable way to learn about nature, but it’s not the whole story and there’s a place also for religion, for faith, for theology, for philosophy.  But that harmony perspective does not get as much attention, nobody’s as interested in harmony as they are in conflict, I’m afraid.

We would be lucky if what he was saying was true, but I do not think it is. For instance, here is a recent summary of American’s beliefs about evolution published in the journal Science:

Over the past 20 years, the percentage of U.S. adults accepting the idea of evolution has declined from 45% to 40% and the percentage of adults overtly rejecting evolution declined from 48% to 39%. The percentage of adults who were not sure about evolution increased from 7% in 1985 to 21% in 2005. After 20 years of public debate, the public appears to be divided evenly in terms of accepting or rejecting evolution, with about one in five adults still undecided or unaware of the issue. This pattern is consistent with a number of sporadic national newspaper surveys reported in recent years.

I would not describe a public that is evenly divided between accepting and rejecting evolution as “kind of comfortable with the idea that science is a reliable way to learn about nature”. It is not extremists who are occupying the stage; any individual expressing doubt or rejection of evolution is unfortunately well within the mainstream of American beliefs.

UPDATE: I’m adding a table from the linked report that clearly illustrates America’s problem with evolution relative to the rest of the world.

If integrating a school garden into curriculum can help teach kids subject matter better and get them to eat healthier, then I’m all for it. Likewise, I think improving school lunches and making them healthier are something worth spending money on. People like TV chef Jaime Oliver and school garden maven Alice Waters who are working to push these issues into mainstream deserve praise. Unfortunately, it seems that these genuinely useful policies and programs are being bogged down with wasteful progressive ideas.

Case in point is this paragraph from a recent Atlantic piece on Alice Waters:

…Waters recruited chef Ann Cooper (a.k.a. the Renegade Lunch Lady) to revamp what was on the school lunch menus in Berkeley, which then reflected typical school-lunch fare. As Director of Nutrition Services, Cooper banned processed foods and started making everything from scratch. She sought local produce, dairy, and bread, and, as much as possible, organic foods, too.

The first problem here is teaching kids to spend any time or money on organic foods, or spending public funds on such things. This may be good for the earth, but as several  comprehensive literature reviews have shown, organic foods aren’t any healthier. Here’s liberal wonk and foodie Ezra Klein summing up the evidence:

The most recent data on this come from a massive literature review commissioned by Britain’s Food Safety Agency (their version of our FDA, essentially) and conducted by Britain’s London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. They concluded that a “systematic review of literature over 50 years finds no evidence for superior nutritional content of organic produce.”

Local is useful so long as it means more fresh, as fresh foods deliver more nutrition than frozen. But local for the sake of local is the kind of thing you worry about when you’ve got time and money to spend on luxuries; it’s not an important value to instill in kids, and especially not poor kids.

Waters and her organization are touting a new study showing that school gardens get kids to eat more vegetables. This isn’t surprising, but how much does it impact their lives once they graduate? Are future blue collar workers really going to take the time to grow themselves vegetable gardens in window boxes outside their apartments? A lot of working people, like Megan McArdle and Matt Yglesias, frequently don’t have time for fresh vegetables. Like Matt, many people have to teach themselves late in life how to make quick delicious snacks out of frozen vegetables. This would be a much more valuable lesson for poor kids then how to select the freshest kale at your local organic farmers market, or even more ridiculously, how to grow your own.

From every description of these programs I’ve read they have an obsession with local, fresh, organic, and growing your own food. The obsession should be on quick, easy, delicious, and inexpensive. These sets of descriptors are damn near antonyms.

If you can get kids to eat and prefer frozen vegetables then you’ve got a sustainable improvement in diet and nutrition. If you get them to like fresh organic vegetables they’ve grown in the garden or bought at the farmers market, then you’ve temporarily instilled in them the tastes of upper middle class people with enough time and money on their hands for such luxuries.

If people like Alice Waters and Jaime Oliver want wider support for heathy schools movements they need to purge them of the wasteful upper-class liberal obsession over local, fresh, and organic foods, and instead focus them on practical and sustainable lessons like how to prepare frozen vegetables cheaply, quickly, and deliciously.

Is there any reason to be fearful of diet soda? The overwhelming scientific consensus is no, there is not. Yet as a consummate consumer of Diet Pepsi I am frequently told that diet soda is dangerous, because it causes cancer or some other health problem. Now I won’t disagree that I’m digesting an unhealthy amount of caffeine, but that’s not what people are usually talking about; they’re talking about the “dangers” of artificial sweeteners. The frequency with which smart, educated people tell me  this is startling, and it makes me wonder to what degree the continued consumption of regular soda is this country is based on irrational and unfounded beleifs about artificial sweeteners. So as a (potentially pointless) public service, I’m going to explain exactly why we nothing to fear from diet soda and artificial sweeteners.

The controversy over artificial sweeteners is not old. Saccharine was invented in 1879, and the first attempt to ban it was in 1911 when panel of federal scientists called it “an adulterant” and concluded it was only fit for food “intended for invalids”. Aspartame was first synthesized in 1965 and initially approved by the FDA in 1974, but critics challenges to the initial studies and claims of conflicts of interest led the FDA to place the approval on stay which prevented it from being used until 1981.

Much of the opposition I hear to artificial sweeteners, and indeed medicine in general, is an appeal to uncertainty. People are think we don’t know what the long-term effects are and have a suspicion about what they see as some brand new chemical; the novelty itself being a cause for concern. But clearly these chemicals have been around for a long time, and one FDA official calls aspartame “one of the most thoroughly tested and studied food additives the agency has ever approved”, and it has also been called “one of the most rigorously tested food ingredients to date”. So appeals to lack of knowledge on the subject are unfounded.

What do these studies tell us? Here is what leading health and science organizations conclude:

  • American Cancer Society: Research on artificial sweeteners, including aspartame, continues today. Current evidence does not demonstrate any link between aspartame and an increased risk of cancer
  • National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health: There is no clear evidence that the artificial sweeteners available commercially in the United States are associated with cancer risk in humans…
  • Mayo Clinic: …numerous studies confirm that artificial sweeteners are safe for the general population.
  • FDA: Food safety experts generally agree there is no convincing evidence of a cause and effect relationship between these sweeteners and negative health effects in humans. The FDA has monitored consumer complaints of possible adverse reactions for more than 15 years.

So there is a large consensus among health and food safety organizations that artificial sweeteners are safe with respect to both cancer and other negative health effects.

Aside from the vast empirical literature showing the safety of artificial sweeteners, there is good theoretical reason to believe they are safe. For example, contrary to popular perceptions that aspartame is some new mystery chemical that directly impacts the body in unknown ways, it is actually broken down by the body into three common metabolites: methanol, phenylalanine and aspartic acid. Wikipedia provides a useful overview of why these chemicals are safe in the amounts found in aspartame.

The amount methanol isn’t a cause for concern because it’s less than is found in fruit juice and other natural sources. Phenylalaline is an essential amino acid that is “required for normal growth and maintenance of life”, and is present in any normal diet in larger amounts than will be found in typical consumption of aspartame. Aspartic acid is “one of the most common amino acids in the typical diet”, and the amount of it found in aspartame is around 1% to 2% of the normal daily consumption of it.

You can’t really be suspicious of artificial sweeteners without taking a paranoid stance towards leading health and scientific organizations in this country, and towards science itself. Most educated people who hold suspicions about artificial flavorings nevertheless trust the conclusions of science and scientific institutions on other issues, like global warming and evolution. So how do these people decide when to trust scientific consensus and when not to? If you’re going to be a scientific nihilist, then you should at least do so consistently.

Tyler Cowen points to an interview with Justin Wolfers on interdisciplinary work. The money quote:

So [psychologists] have a different method of trying to isolate causation. I am certain that we have an enormous amount to learn from them. But I am curious why we have not been able to convince them of the importance of careful analysis of observational data.

At the recent economics conference I had an opportunity to hear from a very bright young psychologist. The data measures that psychologist had were fascinating but the regression analysis was horrid.

I wouldn’t let a senior seminar student get away with what was in that presentation. I suggested to the psychologist that we trade insights over the year. I am still hopeful that we will.

UPDATE: Just to be clear I didn’t mean this as a dig at psychology but a cosign on Wolfers’ contention that we have much to learn but much to offer as well.

Arnold Kling has become a leading critic of Hydraulic Macro, the notion that you add up economic aggregates pull a few levels and watch the economy respond.

In response he suggests that the economy is incredibly dynamic with millions of jobs being lost or gained every month. He points to JOLTS data as evidence.


I couldn’t agree more. I’ve argued that the economy is a dynamic churn ever since graduate school. The thing is – so is hydraulics. All liquids are composed of millions of rolling molecules going to and fro. The net of all of that is what we think of as macro level hydraulics.

Personally, I prefer the comparison to fluid dynamics more generally, which allows for interface instability, distinctions between compressible and non-compressible flow, turbulent and laminar flow, etc.


We have millions of particles that are sometimes moving in patterns that can easily be modeled and then sudden breaks where those easy models fall apart completely.


We have micro world that is much richer and much more dynamic than the marco world we observe.


And we have everyday phenomena which are fundamental to our society but scientists still have trouble explaining to laymen why they occur.


Wikipedia on aerodynamic lift

An explanation of lift frequently encountered in basic or popular sources is the equal transit-time theory. Equal transit-time states that because of the longer path of the upper surface of an airfoil, the air going over the top must go faster in order to catch up with the air flowing around the bottom.[27] i.e. the parcels of air that are divided at the leading edge and travel above and below an airfoil must rejoin when they reach the trailing edge. Bernoulli’s Principle is then cited to conclude that since the air moves faster on the top of the wing the air pressure must be lower. This pressure difference pushes the wing up.

However, equal transit time is not accurate[28] and the fact that this is not generally the case can be readily observed.[29] Although it is true that the air moving over the top of a wing generating lift does move faster, there is no requirement for equal transit time. In fact the air moving over the top of an airfoil generating lift is always moving much faster than the equal transit theory would imply.[6]

The assertion that the air must arrive simultaneously at the trailing edge is sometimes referred to as the “Equal Transit-Time Fallacy”

This is Fluid Dynamics and its not as different from macroeconomics as you might think.

Tyler Cowen points to Roger Scruton’s new book, “The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope”

I’ve been toying with a book idea that in my mind I call “Beyond All Hope: Passion, Rationality and the Fate of Humanity”

So, naturally, I was intrigued. The publisher’s clip states

Ranging widely over human history and culture, from ancient Greece to the current global economic downturn, Scruton makes a counterintuitive yet persuasive case that optimists and idealists — with their ignorance about the truths of human nature and human society, and their naive hopes about what can be changed — have wrought havoc for centuries.

Scruton’s argument is nuanced, however, and his preference for pessimism is not a dark view of human nature; rather his is a ‘hopeful pessimism’ which urges that instead of utopian efforts to reform human society or human nature, we focus on the only reform that we can truly master — the improvement of ourselves through the cultivation of our better instincts.

You had me at “wrought havoc for centuries”

Though, I am still intrigued because I don’t know if our senses of the world align in the final sentence of the description where it says

we focus on the only reform that we can truly master — the improvement of ourselves through the cultivation of our better instincts.

Off the cuff that sounds like the most naively optimistic statement of them all. Institutions, traditions and direct action, I say. Man’s instincts are determined by forces well beyond our control.

Institutions. We want to indentify which institutions seem to be working and fight to protect them. We want to indentify which institutions are not working and expose them to thoughtful evolution. Think of small improvements that are not likely to be catastrophic. Try them and see how it goes. Some – I am not naming any names – might think a 4% inflation target falls into this camp.

Traditions. Here evolution comes best through cosmopolitanism. We expose a bunch of different traditions to one another and we let the most effective parts of each emerge as a meta-tradition. I would argue that this is the essence of the United States.

Direct Action. If while on a walk together, your friend falls a breaks her leg you are likely to be well aware of her suffering and what can be done to alleviate it. There are times when you will get it wrong, but operating one-on-one, human-to-human you cut down on the chance for both false hope and misguided overreach.

To wit, if you really care about the suffering of Bangladeshis then you need to move to Bangladesh. Talk to the people on the street. What do they need right now, today? Are they thirsty? Bring them water. Are they hungry? Help them look for food? You can help a lot of people this way and you don’t have to worry that you mistakenly broke the entire global water and food distribution system.

Lastly, at least in my use of the term, there is nothing contradictory about being a Pessimist and a Millman Progressive – one who thinks humanity’s best days are yet to come.

Pessimism is simply the idea that most things go wrong, that most ideas are bad ideas, and all stories in the long-run have tragic endings. Yet, I can believe this and still have confidence in the march of progress.

Every summer in the wooded park near my house millions of baby spiders emerge from egg sacks.


Within days most of them will be dead. Within two years every last one of them will be dead.

Their story only has one ending.

For most of them it will come swiftly, coldly and brutally. I see the reality of this every summer and it makes me a spider pessimist. There is little anyone could do to change their fate.

Nevertheless, year-after-year in early spring the most beautifully intricate spider creations can be found littered throughout the park.


These creations don’t come about inspite of the mass death and brutally short lives these spiders face. These creations come about because of the mass death and short lives. This is evolution and it’s tragedy and beauty are one.

I recently pressed one of my colleagues on whether or not she believed that Public Administration was solvable.  That is, does there exist an algorithm which takes as its input a public policy and gives as its output the set of steps necessary to align reality with the goals of that policy.

She agreed that there was, though as always I am never sure whether consent was achieved through the logic of my arguments or the passion with which I present them. I try to tell myself its the former. Regardless, that’s one down, several thousand Public Administration scholars to go.

Despite the daunting scale of my mission of conversion, I am looking to expand its scope. Its not just Public Administration which solvable. Public Policy itself is.

To wax nerdy for a moment I would say that for any welfare function there exists a set of policies and administrative tools such that the selection of those policies and the application of those tools maximizes the welfare function. Further, I argue for any well-defined sub-objective there also exists a policy and a set of tools which maximizes it.

What the hell does that jargon mean?

It means that there is a right answer to almost all the policy questions that interest us. Its not that there is a conservative approach, a liberal approach, a libertarian approach, etc. By and large there is a right approach and all others are wrong.

To be more specific, if we agree on a goal – say we want lower unemployment in the United States – then there is some policy and administration of that policy that will produce the lowest levels of unemployment. This policy exists independently of any political philosophies, ideological leanings, or even perceptions of the good. It extends directly from the physical laws which guide the interaction of particles (or the basic “stuff” of the universe whatever that might be.)

This is absolute policy reductionism or Policy Realism as like to refer to it. It is the notion that at its heart policy is about choices over various configurations of subatomic particles, that those particles are finite in number, have a finite number of configurations and hence those configurations are orderable by their distance from a particular goal.

What if anything does this mean?

It means for one thing that statements like “I believe free market capitalism is the best path to prosperity” are vacuous. I use that statement because (a) its repeated over and over by economic pundit Larry Kudlow and his guests and (b) it conforms closely to my priors.

Despite that, however, Policy Realism says that our beliefs about these things is a side point. Even our notions of “capitalism” and “free market” are little more than possibly convenient shorthand. The real question is what do we mean by prosperity and do we want it.

Once that question is answered the philosophical debate is now over. What is to be done is a scientific question. We must determine, scientifically, what policy will produce this outcome. This is powerful because we have rules and traditions in scientific inquiry that are quite different that those used in common policy debate.

In particular, science is less interested in making cases than in testing the implications of hypotheses. Its not about how many arguments you can marshal in favor of your idea. Its about thinking up an experiment or other empirical test that will distinguish your idea and its consequences from some alternative idea , then applying that test and recording the result.

There are many objections to my point of view. Perhaps, the most powerful is that it says nothing about tractability. You say, for instance: sure Mr. Reductionism there might be some algorithm out there somewhere but there is no assurance that we could actually crank out the answer even if some day we could find the algorithm.

This is no doubt true. In part, this is why it is so important that sub-goals also display Policy Realism. More directly though I would argue that our general goal is to do the best we can with what we have. Policy Realism makes that explicit.

Perhaps we can neither find nor solve in a reasonable amount of time this ultimate algorithm. Then, however, we are explicitly looking for approximations and we should acknowledge that.

Our question is how close is this policy to what would be chosen in the world where we knew all the variables and we could crunch the numbers with God’s calculator. None of our real world policy prescriptions, then, are right. They are only less wrong and we should think in those terms.  Thinking in those terms makes it clear that this is not a Manichean struggle between our side and theirs but a joint effort to approximate the ideal policy.

It also means that we should expect our policy views to converge and we should question ourselves when they do not.  We are explicitly refining approximations. Tomorrow someone should have a better approximation than today and that ought to be demonstrable. If we hang on to ages old views or see no techniques we can grab from those who are favoring other policies then something is going wrong.

Lastly, it means that we should be comparing notes and laying bear our assumptions. We are dealing in approximations. Some simplifying assumptions will be involved. Those assumptions may produce consistent errors that bound our policy away from the ideal. That is, they may be biased.

If this is the case then we want to know that. We don’t want to hide our assumptions or gloss over them. We want them exposed, examined, reviewed and torn apart. We want them to be picked-up when useful and discarded when not. We want to move together towards better approximations.

And, it matters if we fail to do this. Because there is a right answer our failure to expose our approximations to refinement means that we will delay our progress towards that answer. We will be left with real states of nature, real configurations of subatomic particles, real human experiences, that are demonstrably worse than they would be otherwise.

We will be leaving the world a fundamentally worse place than it has to be. That cannot be seen as anything other than a failure – a waste of our lives as policy folks.

Bob Wright often argues that the evolution of life on Earth looks a whole lot like the product of design.

. . .  biologists agree that a strictly physical system or process—whose workings can be wholly explained in material terms—can have such extraordinary characteristics that it is fair to posit some special creative force as its source and ask about the nature of that force. Darwin inquired into the creative force behind plants and animals, and his answer was evolution. Surely the believer is entitled to ask the same question about evolution: Where did the amazing algorithm of natural selection come from?

Such a believer, by the way, would not here be making an argument for “intelligent design,” the idea that natural selection isn’t adequate to account for human evolution. On the contrary, the idea here is that natural selection is such a powerful mechanism that its origin demands a special explanation; that evolution by natural selection has patterns and properties every bit as extraordinary as an animal’s maturation toward functional integration.

A lot of commentators tend to dismiss this out of hand, but I think that’s too quick. Bob asks an interesting question and one that cannot be as easily dismissed by Occam’s Razor as you might be tempted to think.

For Bob is not saying that we should believe that there is a creator because evolution begs for an explanation. This would indeed violate the principle of parsimony. Bob is suggesting that we should wonder if there is a creator. That is,  he says: the majesty of evolution suggests we should attempt to accumulate more evidence. On the surface this seems highly appropriate.

The reason I am unenthusiastic about such a project is that unlike the mere existence of animal maturation, our evolution does carry with it, its own reason for existing. In short, for there to have never been evolution at all it must have been that case that no sustainable self-replicators were ever created anywhere in the universe. That seems in-and-of-itself implausible.

Once you have any sustainable self-replicator of any sort some, the process of evolution and natural selection is inevitable. Once that is the case you will get the features of maturation Bob is so enthralled by. The apparent majesty of evolutionary maturation is reduced to the existence of some self-replicator.

Now when we ask ourselves: how likely is it that some random assemblage of molecules would form a sustainable self-replicator. It seems quite likely. Indeed, it strikes us as so likely that the deeper mystery might be why the universe isn’t tiled over with self-replicators of all sorts. Why is so much of space apparently dead?

Indeed, as far as we know, we – as in Earth originating life – are the only ones. Now, perhaps this means that we are seriously underestimating the difficulty of making a sustainable self-replicator. However, the question is: why is evolution so much harder than it seems. Not: isn’t evolution so hard that it needs some outside explanation.

It used to be that daily mental activity was seen as a free lunch in terms of helping to delay dementia. This certainly has an intuitive appeal: exercising your brain will keep it healthy. It also sort of seems fair, in a way, that those who use their brains the most are less likely to lose the capacity to, well, use their brains, just as those who have a more physical lifestyle maintain their physical strength longer in life. However, new research suggests that things may not be so simple, nor so rosy for the thinking man:

According to Wilson, mentally stimulating activities may somehow enhance the brain’s ability to function relatively normally despite the buildup of lesions in the brain associated with dementia. However, once they are diagnosed with dementia, people who have a more mentally active lifestyle are likely to have more brain changes related to dementia compared to those without a lot of mental activity. As a result, those with more mentally active lifestyles may experience a faster rate of decline once dementia begins.

Before you replace Marginal Revolution with TMZ on your RSS feed and commit yourself to a life of not thinking, keep in mind that mental exercises do still appear to delay dementia, it’s just that once onset occurs it comes quicker.

A few days ago Bryan Caplan wondered why economists question whether bringing someone into existence makes them better off, and I had some objections. Bryan has offered up a useful response, in which I think he has inadvertently answered his own question.

He responds to two of my challenges, in which I broadly claimed that if he were right, it would be a moral imperative which would trump all others to bring as many people into existence as possible, which seemed to violate common sense morality. He agrees that this is a bullet to bite for strict utilitarians, but adherents to other moral positions can rationalize not having to behave with an observation that begins “People who actually exist count a lot more than people who could exist but don’t.” This, however, answers the question he asked in the first place, which was:

If someone gives another person the gift of life, however, I’ve noticed that many economists suddenly become agnostic.  $100?  Definitely an improvement.  Being alive?  Meh.

It’s hard to see the logic.  Why would a minor gift of cash be a clear-cut gain, but a massive gift of human capital be a question mark?

Understanding that the cash gift makes someone better off requires nothing more than strict utilitarianism, the mode of analysis economists are trained in. The gift of life however requires something more than strict utilitarianism, and requires some other moral position to justify it. Furthermore, it’s hard to think of a reasonable moral position according to which giving someone $100 does not make them better, whereas it is not so hard to imagine reasonable moral positions according to which the gift of life does not make someone better off. One is clear-cut and requires the usual tools of economic analysis, the other is not and requires appealing to other moral positions.

Elsewhere, and speaking of bullet biting utilitarians, Robin Hanson outlines an economic analysis of which creatures should exist and which shouldn’t. But I think Robin has some big unspoken assumptions in his analysis. The general problem is we don’t know the preferences of the non-existent. Here is how Robin broadly describes how the analysis of which creatures should exist should be done:

Economically, creature X should exist if it wants to exist and it can pay for itself. That is, in a supply and demand world, if our only choice is whether X should exist, then an X that wants to exist should actually exist if its lifespan cost of resources used (including paying for any net externalities) is no more than the value it gives by working for others.

The problem is that we don’t know the preferences of the non-existent, and so we don’t know Robin’s first requirement: whether creature X wants to exist.  Not only that, but according to Robin’s efficiency criteria you have to know whether they prefer an existence conditional on that existence includes paying their costs, and not just existing as a freeloader. You could argue that we could poll the existing and see if they would have preferred to never exist, but we don’t know whether the preferences of the non-existent have any relationship at all to the existing.  In addition, for many creatures we have no way to do even this post-existence polling. How do you understand a dogs preferences for existing versus never existing? And remember, showing a preference for continuing to exist over ceasing to existing is not the same as preferring to existing over never existing.

The problem with both of their analysis is the preferences for existing versus never existing are facts simply knowable through economic analysis, and must be brought from somewhere else. That is why, contra Bryan, I don’t think the value of the gift of life is not clear-cut to economists as the value of a $100 gift, and contra Robin, I don’t think knowing which creatures should exist is amenable to cost-benefit analysis.

I should add that, probabilistically, by simultaneously disagreeing with Robin Hanson and Bryan Caplan, I recognize I am likely wrong. So if I were to bet on these propositions, I would bet against them.

Jim Manzi and I are kindred spirits on the issue of epistemic humility. Out in the real world – as opposed to the whiteboard – only one thing is for sure and that is that this is all going to end very, very badly. The long run is not your friend.

In the mean time, little is for certain. In particular, we are not clear on exactly what the consequences of economic stimulus were. However, it is important to clarify what some economists may have meant by stimulus skepticism.

I wrote frequently in the weeks leading up to the passage of the stimulus that I was a stimulus skeptic. I signed a letter offered by John Boehner for economists who believe that IIRC, stimulus is not the best way to revive our economy.

At no time, however, did I believe that stimulus would have no effect on output. That is, unlike what I believe to be Mulligan and Fama’s stance, I did not believe that labor markets always clear.

What I did think is that I wanted to take what, even then, seemed like enormous monetary risks. It has been rumored that Tim Geithner suggested securing the assets of all major banks in the United States. While I didn’t formally support that, it did not seem absurd to me. Nor, did massive nationalization of the banking system and certainly not aggressive purchases of government securities.

While taking on all of these risks I didn’t see the need to add the confusion and inevitable political food fight of stimulus on top of it. Moreover, if one was going to do a stimulus it seemed much more sensible to simply slash the payroll tax. The bang for the buck would have been less but you can cram a whole lot more bucks through the payroll tax system than you can through the appropriations mechanism. Additionally, the public choice issues in cutting the payroll tax were much more manageable.

The point of all of this is that I listed myself as a stimulus skeptic but I wasn’t at all skeptical about the stimulating powers of government spending. I was skeptical as to whether that was the ideal course of action. That skepticism was as much rooted in my understanding of American political dynamics and my own tolerance for risk as in any scientific claims about macroeconomics.

That has to be always kept in mind. Economists will disagree on policy even when we have no disagreement over economics. We have different policy preferences based on our different assessments on non-economic factors and at the end of the day because we have different tastes for government action.

If you can get 90% of economists to agree on anything, that’s quite a feat.

Co-Blog Tip

In a defense of stimulus skeptics, Jim Manzi offers this appeal to a non-consensus among economists on the issue:

…in a genuinely scientific field which has accepted a predictive rule as valid to the point that there is a true consensus—such that the only reason for refusal to accept it is crankery or, in Chait’s terms, “politics”—you don’t usually see: several full professors at the top two departments in the subject, when speaking directly in their area of research expertise, challenge it; 10 percent of all practitioners in the field refuse to accept it; and the two leading global general circulation publications in field running op-eds questioning it.

Specifically, he cites the fact that the University of Chicago’s Barro, Fama, and Mulligan are stimulus skeptics, and according a survey from Mankiw, so are 10% of all economists. But I don’t think 10% of economists and a handful of high-profile experts disagreeing is sufficient to say there is not a strong consensus.

For economics 90% agreement is a pretty high level of agreement, and I would be surprised to find a consensus much stronger on that on most issues. From a survey of economists by Whaples we can see that “only” 87.5% of economists agree that the U.S. should remove all remaining tariffs and trade barriers, 90.1% believe that employers should not be restricted from outsourcing jobs, 85% agree that subsidies to agriculture should be removed, and the same percent say it about sports subsidies as well. From another survey of economists, 87.5% agree that the U.S. trade deficit is not primarily due to other nations’ nontariff trade barriers, 83.5% agree or agree with provisos that tax policy can affect the long-run rate of capital formation, 93% agree that pollution taxes or tradeable permits are more efficient than emissions standards, 92.9% agree or agree with provisos that flexible exchange rates are effective, and 92.6% agree that tariffs or import quotes reduce the general welfare of society.

Despite the disagreement by 7% to 17% of economists on these issues I would argue that are all accurately characterized as representing as a strong consensus. Whaples calls the agreement in those examples a “consensus” and “an overwhelming majority”, and Fuller and Geide-Stevenson, the authors of the other paper, explicitly refer to those examples as representing a “strong consensus”.

Yet I’m certain that on each of these issues you could find experts at the top 10 economics departments that agree with the minority position. Stiglitz alone will probably disagree with more than half of them, and you won’t have to look hard to find a half a dozen other Ivy League dissenters.

My point is not to disagree with Manzi that a strong consensus means it is okay to call anyone who disagrees with the consensus a “crank” or “politically motivated”, but just to point out that the bar he’s set for a “true consensus” pretty much means that there’s is no “true consensus” on important issues in economics. Then again, he may very well agree with that point.

Via Ryan Avent, Narayana Kocherlakota explains why he won’t be applying for membership in The 4% Club anytime soon.

Of course, the key question is: How much of the current unemployment rate is really due to mismatch, as opposed to conditions that the Fed can readily ameliorate? The answer seems to be a lot. I mentioned that the relationship between unemployment and job openings was stable from December 2000 through June 2008. Were that stable relationship still in place today, and given the current job opening rate of 2.2 percent, we would have an unemployment rate of closer to 6.5 percent, not 9.5 percent. Most of the existing unemployment represents mismatch that is not readily amenable to monetary policy.

I am, of course, open to Kocherlakota’s argument. However, the data series he argues from is extremely young and I have strong priors here. Moreover, this is exactly the type of grumbling that we heard out of the Bank of Japan during the 90s: Don’t blame us there are deeper, structural, problems out there.

I am always doubtful. Geography matters, no doubt. People have ties to families and friends, and in the current environment walking away from an underwater home is not without costs. However, the idea that the economy needs certain kinds of workers but only has certain others strikes me as balderdash.

For one thing I haven’t seen a lot of hard data about excess demand in any part of the labor market. Education and Health are still growing but not at a rate faster than before. Perhaps, nursing salaries are being bid up fast enough to clamp down on quantity demanded but I would have to see a lot of evidence here.

Second, this whole idea just seems cockamamie to me. People can do different things. Its not like, once a welder always a welder. They may have to accept lower pay and they may be reluctant but if any market has the pressure to make people think about changing careers then this it.

FRED Graph

On the other hand you might says its just skills. What we need are more biotech engineers but that takes time and training. However, that has it all wrong. The market doesn’t need. There may be high demand for biotech engineers, though again from what I can tell our young science graduates are terrified of the market place. However,  a shortage of engineers will bid up the price which in turn will increase the demand for substitutes.

In addition, it will make those engineers more wealthy and more likely to spend on personal services. For example, I went to a premium grocer here in West Raleigh last night. This area is a creative class Mecca, topping out all of Richard Florida’s charts. We have biotech, infotech, back-office financial services, stats, you name it.

We also have grocery stores where there might be as many employees as customers. Its a place where food can be custom prepared for you, from fresh ingredients. Its a place where the baker will call you when he is putting in a batch of your favorite cookies so that you can get them fresh out of the oven. Its also a place where “groceries” cost more than causal dining. Its a place that was created for the creative class.

It does not, however, employ the creative class. It employs people who in another time, in another place, would have been factory workers or diner waitresses or any other stereotype of forlorn middle America.

This is how markets work. They shift people and resources towards their most highly demanded use. If that’s not happening then the market is not working. The most obvious cause of sudden, massive market failure is the general glut or excess demand in the market for money.

So, again I am willing to hear the structuralists out. However, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The idea that markets are functioning smoothly but we just can’t think of a way to profitably employ the 14.5 million Americas who say they are looking for a job but can’t find one, is extraordinary.

Jim Manzi says that unlike physics, social science can’t make any useful, non-obvious predications. Which is funny because I can tell you straight away what will happen to equity markets in response to major policy announcements like changes in interest rate targets and the failure of TARP to pass its first vote.

Something, that didn’t appear obvious to the Congressmen who suddenly reversed course after the biggest single day loss in Dow history. In all honesty I wasn’t sure right up until the close whether we would break the single day record, for the simple fact that I didn’t know how long they would keep the books open. The vote happened pretty late in the day. I could tell you, however, that the total drop in demand was going to be record breaking.

On the other hand, all those hard science physicists can’t tell me what’s going to happen when I let go of the handle of this little toy.

That’s because the first problem does not display Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions but the second one does. When economists get to build the markets from scratch like an engineer building an airplane they can give you a pretty solid sense of how its going to respond to external stimuli.

We see this in some of the complex financial exchanges that economists  have built. We see this in things like the medical match market that Al Roth built.

However, when you get stuck out in the real world things get considerably messier. Build a rocket ship to the moon, sure. The liftoff engine is really big, kinda like a 2% hike in the Fed funds rate. And, once you get high enough you’re in a frictionless environment, kinda like a perfectly functioning exchange.

But, I am still waiting for the physicist who can tell me for sure whether or not its going to rain tomorrow. And, they have satellites that can see the rain clouds coming!

That’s because weather, like micro level  human behavior is chaotic. That doesn’t mean we can’t make any predications but it does mean that making predictions is hard.

I find it particularly odd that Manzi agrees with this statement by Sullivan

We can try to understand previous examples; we can examine large randomized trials; but in the end, we have to make a judgment about the timeliness and effectiveness of certain changes. It is the ability to sense when such a moment is ripe that we used to call statesmanship. It is that quality that no wonkery can ever replace.

It is why we elect people and not algorithms.

Since one of, if not the greatest, contributions of economics to humanity is the highly non-obvious insight that no amount of human level judgment can hope to replicate market mechanisms.

Its important to remember that this is not the claim of Jeffersonian Liberals. They were concerned that a ruler would use unfettered power to oppress his subjects. It was social scientists who told us that even the benevolent king, even Aristotle’s philosopher-king, could not handle the information problem that free markets solve.

So I really don’t want this to turn into an argument about the evils of genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, apartheid, imperialism or what have you.

I just think there is a compelling narrative developing here that has nothing to do with demonizing any particular group. I have little doubt that if the positions of various races/ethnicities were swapped the result would be the same.

All that having been said, it looks to me that people aren’t opposed to spreading the wealth around so much as they are opposed to spreading it to Brown and Black people.

In a somewhat controversial paper Alesiana, Glaeser and  Sacardote suggest that ethnic differences explain generosity of the welfare state around the world. In the US, in particular the greater the percentage of black residents the weaker the less distribution available though welfare.


Kevin Drum points today to the common observation that American’s want to cut spending, but they see the most gains from cutting Foreign Aid.

It also worth noting that Defense is least popular when its viewed as Nation Building. When its Nation Destroying as in the beginning days of the Iraq War its pretty popular. However, when we switch to nation building popularity collapses.  Still not to the level of actually aiding other nations, but still.

One interpretation is that American voters are confused, irrational one might even say. They don’t know what they want.

Another hypothesis, however, might be that they know exactly what they want but are unable or unwilling to articulate it. They want to avoid giving away their hard earned money to people who don’t look like them.

Nor, should we find this surprising. The evolutionary psychologist in me would expect just that. After all, we don’t really, really care about other people. We care about other people’s genes. And, we care about other people’s genes because they likely share some of those genes with us. That is, of course unless they look radically different than us, in which case they probably share few.

Indeed, I would argue, and this probably deserves in own post, that cosmopolitan who want to save the world and give to poor people of all colors want to do so precisely because on an instinctual level they are not really sure what they themselves look like.

Without an abundance of mirrors in the evolutionary environment we probably picked up our cues on what we looked like by examining what our friends and family looked like. Anyone who was different from them was likely different from us.

But, if you grow up in a completely diverse environment then you have no idea what you look like, at least your base instincts don’t. And, so you naively assume that the Third World Kid or Ghetto Youth is just as related to you as everyone else. Hence, your willingness to give.

Now, if someone would be so kind as to supply me with 1000 infants of varying races and $100 Million dollars, I will be happy to test this out.

Brad Delong is Puzzled by Richard Campbell


Would you still be conscious if your neurons were replaced by (functionally identical) silicon chips?
. . .
We can similarly wonder whether Block’s "Chinese Nation" (a functional analogue where individual humans communicating via walkie-talkies play the role of neurons) is really conscious. There’s not any physical fact we’re ignorant of here. So if there’s a substantial fact we remain ignorant of, it must concern a matter over and above the physical facts. That is, it must be a matter of non-physical fact.


I don’t know whether Richard Chappell believes that Block’s Chinese Nation is really conscious–I am not sure whether I believe that Block’s Chinese Nation is really conscious–but it’s not because I am uncertain about any matter of non-physical fact. It is because I am uncertain of the meaning and definition of "really conscious."

“Really conscious” doesn’t bother me much. Lets ask this question: When the “Chinese Nation1” finally completes the signals necessary to represent the processing of the color red, is there any being which experiences the color red.

Said another way, is it “like anything” to be a Chinese Nation. It is like something to be person. We are pretty clear on that. I am guessing that its like something to be dog. I don’t know if its like anything to be a worm. I am pretty sure its not like anything to be a rock.

Campbell is asking “is it like anything to be a collection of people with Walkie-Talkies”

That being said, however, I think Campbell is wrong on the physicalist question. We don’t yet have all the answers.  There are more experiments we can do.

The most straight forward experiment would be for me to have the part of my brain responsible for processing the color red replaced by chips. I might then be able to tell whether my qualia had disappeared.

Now, immediate problems pop out – I don’t deny. For one thing unless we’ve gotten something wrong I ought not be able to tell anyone that my qualia has disappeared. From the point of view of the outside world all of the processing in my brain is happening the same way and so I should respond in the same way.

However, if it really has disappeared but I can’t express that then I can’t know that. But, if I can’t know that then what does it mean to say its gone. All very interesting questions that lead to only one conclusion – we need to start cutting into some brains because I am dying to see what if, anything actually happens.

More seriously though, even the attempt to answer some of these practical question can yield useful insights. Suppose for example there is a particular mechanisms within the neurons that is hard to model and seems to act really weird.

We say, ok close is good enough NSF grants and we do the implants without that mechanism. Suddenly our patient tells us that his sense of red is gone. He knows that the picture is red, he can even tell you how red. He just isn’t experiencing red. Well, know we know a lot more about qualia than we did before and we know a lot more about the physical processes that lead to consciousness.

It may be that when someone conducts a Chinese Nation thought experiment that involves replicating this particular complex mechanism that the outcome of a “conscious nation” won’t seem counterintuitive at all. “Well of course if you could get 100 billion humans to all do that, the result will be conscious” we will all say.

Now maybe that won’t happen and we’ll completely reduce the process of cognition down to its most basic parts and be left with no more intuition about consciousness. Maybe. But, I don’t know how we can be sure that will happen from where we are standing right now.

(1) The string of references is long but this has nothing to do with the nation of China. Start here

Reading Kerry Howley’s wonderful piece on cryogenics has me thinking about the conflicts and tensions between life-extending science and religion. It occurs to me that if the progress of science and the treatment of disease and aging ever advances to the point where humans can live forever, it will create a paradox whereby heaven is an impossibility for most believers.

The problem is that in most religions suicide is a very serious sin, and life saving medical treatments should not be refused unless they present undue suffering or burden. See Catechism 2278, for instance. This presents the paradox for believers: the only way to go to heaven is to die, but the only way to die is to commit a sin that prevents you from going to heaven.

How can you die without sinning in a world where immortality is an option? It’s likely that some forms of death would be untreatable, like being exploded so badly that only dust remains. You could simply increase your odds of dying by taking extremely dangerous careers or hobbies that puts you in a high probability of sudden, irreversible, and perhaps explosive, death. The subsequent large supply of labor and low wages in risky industries will mean it’s even easier for non-believers to avoid death.

Maybe the future will see a rise in religious terrorists who target science in an attempt to prevent us from ever achieving immortality. These martyrs would prevent the paradox from occurring, and thus save billions of souls from being locked out of heaven. From the believers perspective, that is a much greater thing to achieve for God than anything todays terrorists seek to accomplish.

Another potential outcome is that people will abandon religion altogether. After all, without the possibility of the reward of a heavenly afterlife, much of the promise of religion goes away. Immortality also allows the avoidance of hell, and so much of the threat of religion goes away as well.

Or perhaps the option of immortality will lead to a rise in the popularity of religions like Christian Science and Jehovah’s Witnesses for whom medical treatments are themselves the sins.

This is one good reason for believers to avoid cryogenics: die now, while you still can.

I wanted to get something out quick about the USDA’s soda report and its implication that a modest soda tax could cause children to loose 4.5 lbs.


I assumed that the 4.5 number came from an equilibrium METs analysis. Basically to do that you note that living one’s life requires burning some number of calories per pound of body weight. The units we use are Metabolic Equivalent Tasks (METs).

Then the embarrassingly simply model says that if we reduce calories by X we will get weight loss. However, as the body looses weight it will burn fewer calories in daily activities. Thus calories-out will be reduced. This rate is determined by your METs assumption.

At some point calories-in and calories-out will re-equilibrate and we think of that as net equilibrium weight reduction. Now setting aside all of the endogeneity / partial equilibrium problems with this simplistic analysis, the USDA report doesn’t even go that far.

No what it does reads to me as unthinkable. They multiply 43 calories per day times 365 days a year and divide by 3500 calories per pound of fat to suggest that children will loose 4.48 ~ 4.5lbs of fat per year!

Per year my friends. Per year!

I often sense from the comments that the extremity of these types of claims fails to sink in. Lets just do a little abstraction.

So, child is loosing 4.5lbs per year. Mind you child’s weight is nowhere in this analysis even implicitly. 4.5lbs a year – that sounds pretty good. Indeed at that rate an eight year old formerly soda guzzling kid could loose 45lbs of fat by her 18th birthday.

But wait a second. What if our child only has 15 lbs of excess body fat. What then. Does she become gymnast level ripped, incapable of menstruating?

Does she fail to grow? We know that mass balance is a fundamental law of nature not a social convention. The laws of physics don’t know if she’s “too thin.” If the calories don’t come from fat, of which she only has 15 lbs, they have to come from somewhere. Perhaps, her growth is permanently stunted? Perhaps, her brain development is impaired? Perhaps she suffers all of the maladies associated with underweight childhood development?

All of these thing are possible from persistent caloric restriction but they seem a bit strong as a result of a soda tax?

“Well that’s taking it to extremes.” you say. This analysis doesn’t work at the extremes. Its just about averages and point estimates.

Here is the important point, however: this analysis makes no distinction between moderate and extreme extrapolation. There is no “distance from baseline” component.

The fact that you know this analysis doesn’t work in extremes means that at minimum the model is imprecisely constructed with relation to scale. Further, I would add, there is simply no reason to assume that the model works over “reasonable” scales but simply fails over extreme ones.

The model can, I would argue does, begin to breakdown as soon as the first gram of fat is lost.

This is a large part of why weight loss science looks and acts like voodoo.

Someone takes a really complex equilibrium system. They indentify a property or set of properties. Re-inserting that property into the entire system is mathematically intractable and indeed, we don’t completely understand the system anyway.

So the analyst linearizes the assumption. If all else is held equal they say. Yet, the scale over which the human metabolism will match a linear approximation is tiny. The body immediately acts to undue whatever effect you tried to create.

So maybe, maybe if you are lucky and you hit the body with the equivalent of sledge hammer’s worth of adjustment you can temporarily squeeze out five, ten maybe even 20 lbs of pure adipose tissue. However, the metabolism soon adjusts and acts to overcome even that enormous effort.

This is the core of the problem we face. Any effort to address this problem that does not recognize this difficulty is doomed to failure.

I cannot beat this drum enough, because people continue to try these types of methods, continue to fail and continue to be shocked at that failure. And, even if that type of hamster wheel insanity was ok as a private choice, if definitely shouldn’t form the basis of public policy.

Let me say will all the force I can: We must not pick winners and losers based on analysis that fails to recognize key elements of the public problem.

It is deeply, deeply irresponsible to do so.

Note: A previous version of this post attributed the report to the FDA when in fact it was from the USDA

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